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Father of History, Father of Lies
By David Pipes
It was in the early days of the Peloponnesian War that Herodotus completed his History
and published it. It was something new, something unique. It was not a chronicle, nor
was it a local history. It was historia<1>-- researches into a major event of the past. It is
no coincidence that Herodotus wrote his work at this time. In his History Herodotus tells
of the Persian Empire, its rise to the height of imperialism, and its faltering and ultimate
collapse. Some say that Athens, too, had reached the height of her imperialism, and the
Peloponnesian war would bring to Athens what the war Herodotus wrote about brought
to Persia. The author of the History wanted to do more than retell the events of the past,
he want to prove a point and make sure the people of the future remembered and learned
from the events of the past. He did not want to relate his story. He wanted to relate
The Life and Travels of Herodotus
People sometimes let their own experiences filter the way they interpret the events of the
past. For this reason it is important that anyone seeking to study the work of another-whether a history, a diary, or even a personal letter--should devote some effort to the
study of that person's life. Only then can a student of history effectively judge the work of
the historian in its proper light. Was the author trying to make a point? Was he hoping to
convince the reader of something? If there is some deeper meaning to the history that
someone creates, the key to unlocking that meaning will be found in his past.
The man known to history as Herodotus is believed to have been born in Halikarnassos
around 484 BC. Most of what is know about him comes from a tenth century Byzantine
lexicon, the Souda, and even that is incredibly brief:
Herodotus, the son of Lyxes and Dryo, a man of Halicarnassus, belonged to a prominent
family and had a brother, Theodoros. He emigrated to Samos because of Lygdamis, the
tyrant of Halicarnassus, the third in line after Artemisia. For the son of Artemisia was
Pisindelis, and Lydgamis was Pisindelis's son. While in Samos, he mastered the Ionic
dialect, and wrote a history in nine books, starting with Cyrus the Persian, and Candaules,
the king of the Lydians. He returned to Halicarnassus and drove out the tyrant, but
afterward, when he saw that he was hated by the citizens, he went as a volunteer to Thurii
when it was being colonized by Athens, and there he died and was buried in the
marketplace. But some authorities state that he died in Pella...<2>
The Souda is not perfect as a biography, however. It is known that Herodotus did not
learn the Ionic dialect while in Samos. By Herodotus' day Ionic was the native tongue of
the Dorian founded Halikarnassos. There is also speculation that the family may have had
partially non-Greek origins not mentioned in the biography, since the father's name and
that of another male relative, Panyassis, is Carian, not Hellenic.<3> Also, in the History,
Herodotus treats the Carians with "a sympathy that he withholds from the Ionian cities
that were Halikarnassos's neighbors."<4>
This mixed heritage and Halikarnassos' position on the edge of the Hellenic world would
have given Herodotus the historian a unique viewpoint among Greeks. He was aware of
the differences between the Greeks and the barbarians, but he does not treat the
foreigners as inherently inferior. In fact, he sees them as equals to the Greeks in many
ways, highlighting their courage and strength.<5> Herodotus also lived under both the
Persians and Athenians, and had the opportunity to compare and contrast both
Many of the facets of Herodotus" personality can be deduced from the events of his early
childhood. His History makes it clear that he was curious about everything, and that
while well read, Herodotus preferred to learn first hand. He wanted to see foreign lands
for himself, talk to the people who lived there, hear their stories, and draw his own
conclusions.<7> To this end, Herodotus traveled the length and breadth of the known
world, intending to visit as many countries as he could and meet as many people as
It is believed that Herodotus first traveled to the north, which makes sense given his
inquisitive nature. To the south lay Egypt, a country well known to the Greeks, and one
with whom there were "long and ancient ties."<8> All countries to the east of Greece
were still under Persian control at this time, and to the west, Greeks had explored and
founded colonies all the way to Massilia (Marseille). The North, however, was a vast,
unexplored mystery. There were scattered Greek settlements on the coasts of the Black
Sea, but beyond them, the wilderness of Thrace and Scythia beckoned.
Herodotus sailed north from Samos, following the coast of Asia minor and to the
Hellespont. After sailing to various spots in the Sea of Mamara, he then traveled through
the Bosphorus, visiting the city of Byzantium, barely a hundred years old at this time, and
Chalcedon.<9> Byzantium was already a city eight miles in circumference by the time
Herodotus visited it, and it had been liberated from the Persians only thirteen years
before. The time spent in this area must have been very exciting to Herodotus. He saw the
straights of the Hellespont where Xerxes constructed his bridge of boats for the invasion
of Europe, the spot where Darius made his crossing of the Bosphorus on his way to
Marathon, and various other sights rich in legend and tradition.<10>
The coastal areas of the Black Sea had been subdued by the Persians in the sense that
they once controlled the coastal cities and could move through the interior with large
armies, but the lands in modern day Bulgaria and Romania "were hardly a place through
which an unescorted stranger could travel."<11> Herodotus, however, still had the
persistent recklessness of his youth, and on one or two occasions, probably with
experienced guides (if not armed guards) penetrated the interior to see the tribes that lived
beyond the Greek frontier.
Herodotus viewed the Thracians as a warlike, somewhat inferior people, much like
Americans were viewed by their British counterparts during the colonial period. He saw
the peculiar, un-Greek, traits and customs, but failed to see the complex social system
and tradition which had given rise to them. He traveled their lands northward all the way
to the Danube river, and learned from the peoples along the river about the lands and
peoples farther upstream, namely the Celts and the Cynetes.<12>
After he had seen as much of the region as he could, Herodotus set out once again, this
time for the primary objective of his expedition, the city of Olbia, on an inlet where the
Bug and Dnieper Rivers meet. Olbia was the most important Greek city on the Black sea,
and for Herodotus it was the natural center from which he could learn about the Scythians
and the lands they inhabit.<13>
While in Olbia, Herodotus traveled with various Greek trading vessels, heading up the
Dnieper into the region of Kiev. Despite all his travels, Herodotus was no pioneer. He
only went where the Greek merchants already could and did go.<14> Because of this, the
accounts of his travels in the region are sparse relating mainly to comments on the
climate, which was bitterly cold, and the customs and traditions of the people near the
shores where the Greeks stopped to ply their trade. From these limited sources, however,
Herodotus was able to infer with incredible accuracy the origins of the Scythians.
Herodotus was correctly able to identify the Scythians as an Indo-European people
(though he did not use that term) who migrated from central Russia in the 8th and 7th
centuries BC. Later studies have shown that he was also able to correctly deduce the
circumstances of their emigration into Scythia<15> and discount several of the local
legends surrounding their origins.<16>
Risking a violent and gruesome death,<17> Herodotus continued his voyages around the
Black Sea, learning about the peoples in the area. He also noted that the farther away a
people was reported to live, the odder the people became. For instance, he is told of a
people beyond the Scythians who people who supposedly wore black cloaks and ate lice.
Beyond them dwelled a race of bald headed men, and beyond them still were a race of
men with goats feet, and finally a race of men who slept six months out of the year. Of
course Herodotus refused to believe much of what he was told. The people of Neuri, he
was told, became wolves once a year. Herodotus immediately discounts the story, a
scepticism far in advance of his age, when one takes into account the fact that 15th
century theologians ruled that not only were there werewolves, but that they were the
work of the devil and to be abhorred.<18>
Despite the obvious legends and myths that Herodotus discovered while in Scythia, he
also explored truly historic sites. The forts which Darius constructed to secure his
advance into Greece were still in existence when Herodotus visited them. Similarly,
correspondence between the Scythian kings and the Persian emperors was still in the
collective memory of the peoples there and had great significance on the History
Herodotus was to write.
It is believed that Herodotus made one more stop on his voyages around the Black Sea.
Herodotus directly states that he went to Colchis, and at no other time would he have had
a better opportunity to visit the site where Jason and the Argonauts retrieved the Golden
Fleece.<19> Herodotus was more interested in events relating to his own age, however,
and went to Colchis because they were a tribute paying member of the Persian Empire
and to investigate rumors that the people of Colchis were of Egyptian descent. His
description of encounters there, however, are considered among the most untrustworthy
of all the accounts in his History. The conclusions he reaches regarding the origins of the
Colchis, while plausible, are hardly incontrovertible, and if not for his own direct
statement, there would be little reason to believe he had ever set foot in the country.
From Colchis, it is believed that Herodotus traveled home, first traveling through
Panticapaeum and Olibia and then back through the Bosphorus. From the 18th century
onward, archeological expeditions in southern Russia have verified and expanded the
knowledge of the Scythians first passed along by Herodotus.<20> While some of the
details of Herodotus' accounts of his travels among the Scythians have been proven false,
the vast majority have been proven correct, leading scholars in recent days to take the
other accounts of Herodotus, "father of lies,"<21> a little more seriously.
Upon returning from his trip to Scythia, Herodotus took part in the liberation of his
Halikarnassos, and succeeded in removing the tyrant Lygdamis from power. Herodotus,
though a member of a leading Halikarnassian family, had no desire to shoulder the
responsibilities of state,<22> and his inquisitiveness and wanderlust took hold of him
once again. It should be noted, however, that some scholars feel that it was Herodotus'
unpopularity due to his Athenian ties, and not his restlessness that caused him to
leave.<23> In any event, Sometime between 454 and 449 BC, Herodotus set out again,
this time for Babylon.<24>
The first stop on Herodotus' voyage was the city of Myriandrus, a Phoenician colony on
the coast of Syria, a few miles south of the modern day city of Iskenderun. From there he
traveled about 100 miles eastward to the shores of the Euphrates river, which he intended
to follow downstream to Babylon. Herodotus stopped at several cities along the river,
inquiring as to their history and cultures, and again has been proven accurate in his
renditions of their tales.<25>
Herodotus continued his voyage down the Euphrates to the city of Babylon. While in the
city he inquired as to its capture by the Persian Cyrus, and the brief revolt which Darius
put down in 521. By the time Xerxes came to power revolts in Babylon had become
almost continuous, and Xerxes demolished much of the fortifications and destroyed large
portions of the city.<26> Thirty years later, when Herodotus visited the city, the damage
had been all but erased. He describes the city as being fifty-six miles in circumference
and surpassing in splendor any known city in the world.<27> Herodotus also notes the
architectural wonders of the city as well as the dress, beliefs, and customs of the people
living there.
At some time before 449 BC, Herodotus left the city and returned home. It was not long
after that-- 446 at the latest-- that Herodotus set out on his third great expedition, this
time to Egypt. While in the northern, delta region of the country, Herodotus spent his
time with the Egyptian priests, who told the Greek of their history, culture, and science.
He was intrigued with the differences between Greek and Egyptian priests,<28> the
differences in climates and cultures and with the deep and rich history of the region.
The Nile itself proved especially interesting for Herodotus, because its regular flooding
of the fields was unknown in Greece.<29> The river behaved as no other river the Greek
historian had ever seen. During the summer months, rivers in Greece shallowed and dried
up, but in Egypt, the opposite would occur. Herodotus continued to travel upstream,
probably in search of the source of the Nile, a subject that he apparently was very
interested in and one in which he could find little information. Herodotus dismisses many
of the ancient theories on the origins of the Nile, and while he is correct in the refutation
of these theories, the solutions he presents for the behavior of the Nile are equally
It is relatively easy to tell which places in Egypt Herodotus visited, but the order in which
he visited them and the routes he took to get there are difficult to determine.<31> It is
known that Herodotus visited Naucratis, and that from there he either went to Sais and
Buto, or traveled by sea to Buto and then to Sais, which is far more likely.<32> Then he
traveled onward to a place he calls "Papremis," which may have been either Xois or
Chois, a city on an island in the Sebennytic branch of the Nile.<33> While there he saw
the skulls of the Persians who had been killed by the Libyan king who rose against Darius
and investigated the links between the Egyptian kings and the ill-fated Athenian
expedition of 460 BC.
From there, Herodotus journeyed on to Busiris, where he observed and recorded some of
the practices of the cults of Osiris and Isis. He traveled cross-country to Bubastis, on the
eastern bank of the Pelusian branch of the Nile.<34> Though little remains of Bubastis
today, Herodotus apparently had fond memories of its tree-lined streets and large
temples. From there it is believed that Herodotus traveled to Heliopolis, whose
inhabitants, Herodotus believed, were the most learned in Egypt. It is presumed that the
priests in Heliopolis related the details of their religion and culture to Herodotus, but for
once he Greek historian is tight-lipped about what he had learned.<35>
Leaving Heliopolis, Herodotus wandered south, until he reached the narrows where the
Nile is hemmed in by the Arabian mountains. Here, near the quarries which were the
source of the stone used for the pyramids was the city of Memphis. Like any tourist of
Egypt, Herodotus visited the pyramids, and described the three great pyramids in detail. It
is interesting to note, however, that while he must have seen it, Herodotus makes no
mention of the Sphinx.
Herodotus continued south from Memphis into Thebes, the chief city of Upper Egypt,
and believed to be one of the oldest in the world.<36> The city left him a little flat,
however, and for some unknown reason Herodotus has little to say about it. Some have
taken this as a sign that this part of the History is a fabrication, but as anyone who has
found the Grand Canyon dull or thought the Eiffel Tower was just a building knows,
sometimes a visitor just is not impressed by the impressive. It is a sign of Herodotus'
honesty that when he has nothing to say, he says nothing about it.<37>
This malaise drove him onward from Thebes toward the destination he had sought from
the start of his journey into Egypt, the city of Elephantine. Elephantine was a Persian
frontier post and marked the southern boundary of the Persian Empire, and Herodotus has
no intention of traveling into the country beyond. Instead he relies on hearsay to gather
information about the kingdom of Ethiopia, which lies to the south.<38> Aside from the
information he was able to gather in Elephantine, Herodotus also had the first hand
accounts of Ethiopians who had served in Xerxes' army during its invasion of Greece to
tell him about the lands which lay beyond him.<39>
Having reached his ultimate destination at Elephantine, Herodotus returned north to see a
few more sites in lower Egypt. He was apparently not in much of a hurry to return to
Halikarnassos, either because traveling had become habitual or because he knew that he
would not like it when he got there. Still he probably did feel a longing for home, and if
home was not Halikarnassos, it was at least Greece. From some port in eastern Egypt,
Herodotus set out by boat for Cyrene, a Greek colony five hundred miles to the
west.<40> There he continued his investigations into the local peoples, and inquired
about the inhabitants of Northern Africa as far as the pillars of Hercules and beyond,
though there is little substance to the stories he is told.<41>
From there he sailed on to Tyre, where he apparently still had some questions which
needed answering, and left Africa behind him.<42> His purpose in Tyre was to check on
the accuracy of what he had been told in Egypt about the origins of Egyptian and Greek
religion. These stories were verified at an ancient temple to Heracles in Tyre, where the
Egyptians believed the history of their gods went back seventeen thousand years.<43>
With this last bit of business concluded, Herodotus finally set sail for home.
Herodotus knew that Halikarnassos was not the place for him, however, and within two
years he had left once again, this time for Athens. The city had been sacked and burned
by Xerxes in 480, but that had been more than thirty years ago. The atmosphere in
Athens, however, was little more comforting to Herodotus than the one he left in
Halikarnassos. A law passed by Pericles in 451 ended all hopes Herodotus might have
had of becoming an Athenian citizen, and instead of remaining as a resident foreigner,
Herodotus began to reconsider his options.<44> Having been as far north, south, and east
as any Greek, Herodotus decided to set off once again, this time as a "not-so-reluctant
colonist to Italy."<45> Evidence in Aristotle's Rhetoric tells us that Herodotus emigrated
to Thurioi, an Athenian colony in southern Italy,<46> sometime after 444,<47> where it
is believed that he completed his history.
Herodotus did not remain in Thuria, however. He probably returned to Athens sometime
around 430. On at least three occasions Herodotus refers to incidents in the opening
phases of the Peloponnesian War that tie up loose ends from earlier in the History.<48>
These events, however, would have been too minor for someone living in southern Italy
to have known about.<49> The city at this time was at the highest point of glory, and yet
at the pinnacle of disaster, as it moved closer to war with Sparta. It is believed that he
stayed in the city from 431-430, but the city was probably starting to loose its luster to the
aging historian. Herodotus had already written about one war, he had little desire to write
about another.
It is unclear just how long Herodotus stayed in Athens, but a few facts can be inferred
from his influence on others. When Aristophanes published his Archarnians in 425, there
are clear allusions to Herodotus' work,<50> but unlike Aristophanes' treatment of
Socrates, Euripides, and others, there are no physical parodies of the Historian. Some
scholars take this to indicate that Herodotus was no longer in Athens by 425, as
Aristophanes tends to reserve satire for what is prominent and present--"obscurity earned
no laughs."<51>
It is most probable that Herodotus returned to Thuria after his stay in Athens, possibly to
flee the plague which had broken out there, possibly because there was nothing else for
him there. In any event, his days of traveling were behind him and, assuming he left
Athens alive, Herodotus settled down to a life of relaxation and editing of his work. His
voyages to the four corners of the world brought Herodotus into contact with more
peoples than any other Greek of his day, and he used what he learned in his research to
tell the story of the war that shaped his youth. It is ironic that with all of Herodotus
efforts to preserve the memories of the events of others, the circumstances, even the
location and date, of his own death have been forgotten. While anyone could have related
the tales of the Persian war, it is the details and tidbits garnered while traveling that
separate Herodotus' tale and have made it stand out for over two thousand years.
The Well
Clearly, Herodotus was a well read and well traveled man, but no one could create such a
work out of nothing. What was the well from which this wealth of knowledge was
drawn? What sources did Herodotus use to create such a diverse and colorful History?
What Herodotus learned from the people with whom he spoke to while on his travels he
undoubtedly called upon while constructing his work, but he also drew on the collective
learning of all those who had gone before him. The fifth century BC marked the
beginning of a period when records and genealogies were being "ferreted out,"<52> and
while he was at the vanguard of that movement, it is clear that Herodotus did not move
About 400 years after Herodotus, another historian from Halikarnassos, Dionysius,
briefly described the beginnings of Greek historical research by saying: "Before the
Peloponnesian War there were many early historians in many places. . . . A second group
was born a little before the Peloponnesian War and were Thucydides' early
contemporaries. . . ." Herodotus, however, enlarged the historian’s scope. "He chose not
to write down the history of a single city or nation, but to put together many, varied
events of Europe and Asia in a single comprehensive work."<53> This passage seems to
indicate that contemporary to Herodotus there existed local historians, all crafting
personal histories for one reason or another.<54>
If this passage is taken at face value, it is possible that Herodotus did not have to rely
solely on the data provided by his own travels to construct his History. Herodotus himself
mentions the work of Hecataeus of Miletus,<55> who wrote two books of historical
geography and was a major source in Herodotus' writings on Egypt. Unfortunately, not
enough of Hecataeus' work has survived for us to judge just how dependent upon it
Herodotus was. There are several direct quotes from the geographer's work,<56> but only
once outside of Egypt does Herodotus quote Hecataeus.<57>
While we can show that Herodotus had a familiarity with Hecataeus, there are several
other sources which Herodotus was probably familiar with but which we cannot identify.
Charon of Lampsacus, Xanthus of Lydia, and Dionysius of Miletus all wrote histories of
their respective areas that Herodotus could have drawn on, but his dependence on them is
unclear. What is clear is that Herodotus regarded himself as an independent researcher,
and that his work on the Persian War was an original achievement.<58>
Like any good historian, Herodotus includes as much primary material as he could glean
from the people he talked to in his work. Herodotus does not fully trust his sources,
however. He takes special care to let his readers know when he is relating what he was
told by other people, and often includes accounts that he believes to be false simply
because that is what he was told. As Herodotus himself says, "Throughout the entire
history it is my underlying principle that it is what people severally have said to me, and
what I have heard that I must write down."<59>
Herodotus lived in a time when oral traditions were still preserved with care, and he
probably gained most of his information this way.<60> Most scholars believe that even
without extraordinary means, oral traditions, cultures, and memories can remain fresh for
three generations. The Persian Wars were still within the three-generation span when
Herodotus did his research, and Herodotus undoubtedly spoke to living witnesses of the
great invasion.<61>
By the 5th century, Greek culture was beginning to organize itself with historical learning
in mind. Temples and Oracles were beginning to collate their records and temple archives
were beginning to gain some acclaim. There are records that show by 403 BC Athens had
organized a central archive in the Metroon, the temple of the Mother of the Gods, and
some sources claim that the records there went back as far as the sixth century.<62>
Though we have little evidence, it is probable that other temples outside of Athens kept
records not just of temple matters but secular ones as well. These document collections,
however, would prove little help to Herodotus.<63>
The documentary evidence that is so valued among modern day historians was simply of
no use to Herodotus. In the first place, the temple archives that housed what little
documentary evidence there was did not simply open their doors to every wanderer who
happened by.<64> Unless a document was published--which means it was inscribed and
set in a public place--the average person would not have had access to it, let alone been
able to read it. Herodotus cites twenty-four inscriptions, half of them Greek, half
not.<65> Some of these he wrote down, some he recalled from memory,<66> but for the
most part Herodotus does not value documentary evidence very highly-- the reason was
not that it was unavailable, but that it was inaccessible.<67>
Herodotus has been called the father of History, and indeed he attempts to earn that title.
He follows the same patterns of research and inquiry that have been par for historical
investigations for the centuries that followed. Herodotus interviewed witnesses, both first
and second hand, looked into documentary evidence, even traveled the same paths his
History would go, all in an attempt to preserve the events of men, and, as if seeking von
Ranke's approval, to tell his story as it actually happened.
To Tell a Tale
Every historian, even the first, consciously and unconsciously shapes his narrative and
judgements so as to convey a perception of his subject in a persuasive manner.<68> The
historian, by his delivery and style has the power to distance the reader from the subject
at hand, or by a simple twist of phrasing invite them into the drama he creates. Herodotus
has an agenda that he tries to bring forth in his narrative. There are certain incidents and
episodes that the historian wants to accent, and in doing so shapes his History to fit his
idea of what is needed.
An ideal flow of events would be one in which one page describes one event, in an
endless flow of history which begins at the beginning and ends at the ending. This
however is a dream which no realistic historian even attempts to attain, and Herodotus is
no exception. Herodotus interrupts the rhythmic progress of his history with privileged
scenes-- special incidents special only because Herodotus chose them-- designed to
develop themes that may not become apparent until hundreds of pages later.<69> He
inflates the incidents that he tells with dramatic detail, while at the same time deflating,
or even ignoring, other episodes-- sometimes days, weeks, or even centuries go
unrecorded all for the sake of dramatic telling.<70>
An example of this can be seen in the seventh book of the History. Herodotus wanted his
audience to see the wonders that Xerxes accomplished in crossing his army over the
Hellespont on the ill-fated invasion of Greece.<71> To place us there, Herodotus tells the
story from the point of view of a local Hellespontine who watches and relates the story in
awe. Whether this person was actually there or not, or even if he every spoke of such an
event to Herodotus is not really the point. The story is painstakingly told as if it were
happening at that time, and the eye-witness narrator draws the reader in so that he or she
is no longer looking into a window to the past, but instead is a participant in it.<72>
Despite the literate culture in which he lived and work, there are still numerous elements
in the History which harken back to the epic days of old. One of the key characteristics of
epic poetry is the use of extensive catalogues, best exemplified by the listing of ships in
Book II of the Illiad. This catalogue is paralleled by Herodotus' listing of the invasion
force of Xerxes and to a lesser extent the lists of Ionian cities, Greek fleets, and so
on.<73> Genealogy, also a key component in the Homeric narrative, plays an important
role for Herodotus. Of course this may be for more practical concerns that a simple
reverence for the epic poet. In cultures which preserve their history orally, genealogies
and king-lists provide the best and in some cases only means of dating a past event. It
may be known that something occurred in the fifth year of King X, but exactly how many
years ago that was is unclear. By estimating the number of years between generations,
however, it is possible to count backwards and estimate approximately how long ago an
event occurred.
Herodotus will also interrupt a speech or other dramatic moment to make sure his
audience has followed the story correctly up to that point. In book five, for instance he
interrupts Aristagoras' speech by inserting, "While speaking, he was pointing to the map
of the earth that he carried around engraved on his tablet."<74> This hardly seems
relevant, especially since Herodotus had described the map earlier in that very same
paragraph. For a literate man, reading the History, there would be no need to repeat the
description of the map-- he could easily back up a few lines and re-read the description if
it pleased him. This repeating of the description is a throwback to the days of oral
tradition and oral epic poetry, where elements are repeated because "in lengthy recitals of
epic poetry with attendant fuss and movement in the crowd, there must have naturally
have been some loss of comprehension. . . ."<75>
Herodotus draws the reader into his work through the use of other old-time epic devices.
In the text of his work, the words and forms he uses also serve the same purpose. He
consistently uses the second person singular in his work, almost as though he were
talking to the reader personally. For instance, when discussing his (erroneous) belief that
all Persian names end in "-s" he writes, "On searching this out, you will find no
exceptions to this among their names."<76> This also allows Herodotus to permit his
readers to hold different beliefs, by showing the existence of different points of view (I
believe this, while you can believe that), a "form of presentation rarely found in other
Herodotus' use of digression is also a leftover device from Homeric times.<78> At first
glance, the numerous digressions in Herodotus' narrative seem like haphazard placements
of material, sometimes relevant, oftentimes not. This view, however, comes from a
modern interpretation of the style of historical writing.<79> The modern historian also
arranges his narrative in a dramatic form, but he or she uses footnotes, endnotes and
citations to show the inner workings-- the raw data-- of his or her work. These notes
allow the historian to share sources of information, present tangential information, and
provide basis of opinions. It allows the historian to "keep the forest in view while
examining particular trees."<80> Herodotus, however, was not able to use such
conventions as footnotes or endnotes (or for that matter, pages, chapters, or books).
Because of this, his digressions had to be placed more carefully, so that Herodotus could
make his point without losing his audience.<81>
One of the largest problems that many historians have with Herodotus is his use of direct
speeches in the later books of the History. It is clear that there is no way Herodotus or his
sources could have obtained word for word transcripts of the speeches of local Greek
leaders, much less Xerxes and the other Persian emperors. Therefore we must accept that
these speeches were made up by Herodotus (or his "sources") for some greater
purpose.<82> It is possible that the dramatic speech is also a throwback to the epic days
of yore, but it far more likely that they serve a serious purpose.<83> Recent scholars have
pointed out that in Greek history, the narrative is used to relate historical events, and the
personal speeches are reserved to provide rational explanation for the events.<84> These
dramatic speeches are used (and composed?) by Herodotus to reveal character, to explain
a policy, and, most importantly, to keep the audience interested in the progress of the tale.
One of the traits that separates Herodotus from the many historians both before and after
him is the way in which he relates to his audience. He does not lecture them like a
superior professor to inferior students, but relates to them like friends and equals. He uses
humor, irony, and sarcasm in a way few since have succeeded, especially in the way he
relates to the unbelievable or demonstrably false portions of his history. For instance, in
the fourth book of the history,
There is a lake in it from which the girls of that country draw up gold dust out of the mud
with bird feathers smeared with pitch. I do not know if this is exactly true; I write down
just what I am told. Still, anything may happen...<85>
The irony is practically dripping off the page as it is read. These planned literary devices
show the audience that Herodotus is not rambling uncontrollably as he relates his story,
and while they are one step beyond the familiar figures of speech, they are not incapable
of ferreting out historical truth and delivering it to the audience.<86> Indeed, it may be
Herodotus' use of baser literary constructs which make his History so appealing to the
people and so disliked by historians.
Herodotus may have been at the forefront of the historical revolution in Greece, but he
clearly was descendent from a long literary line. Herodotus makes the jump from the epic
poems of Homer to secular history, but he does not forget the roots from which his genre
came. It is possible that Herodotus employed the same structures and methods of the epic
poet because of the similarities in their work. Herodotus was not a blind poet, but his did
tell a tale. He was not honored as telling the stories of gods and men, but he still sought to
make a living by entertaining others. Herodotus used tried and true methods of telling a
great story, and incorporated them into his History when it was committed to paper. With
every word that Herodotus composed, he sought to craft a history so that "time may not
draw the color from what man has brought into being. . .,"<87> and to do this he did not
use the stuffy, high-minded Greek rhetoric that the philosophers preferred, but instead the
epic language of the greatest storyteller ever told.
Conclusion -- To Influence the Ages
While little is known about Herodotus' life or death, his influence in both his own time
and the future is undeniable. Herodotus enjoyed limited fame in his own lifetime-probably enough to support himself in his later years on the equivalent of the lecture
circuit. Fortunately Herodotus was long dead before the true attacks on his character and
work were penned, even though the first and perhaps deepest cut was made by
Thucydides, a neophyte historian only some ten years his junior. In the years, decades,
and centuries that followed in the aftermath of the History, Herodotus was seen as
entertainer, plagiarizer, and even outright liar, but despite what those who followed him
thought about him and his work, he was the first, the father of the new study of history.
Herodotus was known in the Greek world while he was still alive, and his time in Athens
did much to enhance his fame. Aristophanes satirizes him in his play Acharnians,
something hardly justifiable if Herodotus was an unknown scholar. There are also
theories that Sophocles borrowed from the stories of Herodotus in his composition of his
Theben Trilogy, especially Antigone.<88> But it was not long, however, before
Herodotus' fifteen minutes of fame were up and others in his field began to attack his
work and the fame it brought the historian from Halikarnassos.
Though Thucydides never mentions Herodotus by name, he voices his contempt for his
predecessor in the opening of his own work:
The absence of an element of romance in my account of what happened, may well make
it less attractive to hear, but all who want to attain a clear point of view of the past, and
also of like or nearly like events which, human nature being what is, will probably occur
in the future-- if these people consider my work useful, I shall be content. It is written to
be a possession of lasting value, not a work competing for an immediate hearing.<89>
Thucydides seems to claim a seriousness which he feels his predecessor lacked, and the
fact that Herodotus was followed by frauds such as Ctesias of Cnidus<90> while
Thucydides was followed by serious historians such as Xenophon, Sallust, and Procopius,
did little to help the father of History's reputation.<91>
After Alexander the Great's conquests opened up the East, countries such as Egypt and
Persia were suddenly much better known. Herodotus was indeed popular during the
Hellenistic period, but he was popular because every two-bit intellectual went abroad
with the intent of writing a pamphlet disproving some facet of the History.<92> The only
one of these pamphlets that has survived with the text intact is Plutarch's On the
Malignity of Herodotus. Plutarch's attacks, however, ring of the same right wing
patriotism that can be seen in most xenophobic nation-states.<93> Herodotus praised
things that went against the national character of the empire, and to make matters worse,
"he wrote so well that people read him."<94>
The Renaissance took its views of Herodotus from the past, with the academic elite still
holding him in disdain while the more common scholars enjoyed him as a great read. It is
interesting to note that while there were forty-one versions of Thucydides' work in
Europe between 1450 and 1700, forty-four versions of the inferior work of Herodotus
have been found so far.<95> At some point during this period, Herodotus began to
experience a resurgence in popularity. As though caught up in the rebirth of the
Renaissance itself, Herodotus was again turned to as people once more turned to the
orient as a place of wonder and excitement.
The nineteenth century allowed modern day scholars to examine Herodotus in a new
light. As archaeologists spread out over Egypt, Persia and the rest of the Middle East,
they turned up evidence that made it clear that Herodotus' "marvelous tales" were not
fiction.<96> By the twentieth century, Herodotus had gained a healthy respect as a
reporter, and as more and more of his accounts were backed up with archaeological
evidence he grew in reputation as a researcher.<97>
The historian from Halikarnassos set out with a simple goal in mind. He wanted to
preserve the events of men so that they would not fade from the tapestry of history. It is
ironic that through the centuries, all that Herodotus sought to preserve was nearly lost
simply because he sought to preserve it. Surviving attacks from contemporaries and
would be critics, Herodotus ultimately succeeded in his goal-- He delivered his message
to the present day, where modern science and history have been able to prove him
Herodotus-- Father of History and Father of Lies-- What will the future think of him? If
success is judged by the completion of stated goals, then truly, Herodotus succeeded with
his History. In any event, when one takes into consideration the struggles Herodotus and
his marvelous tale endured both before and after his death, there can be no doubt that he
has earned his place at the vanguard of history.
1 J.A.S. Evans Herodotus. Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1982. 1.
2 Quoted in Evans, 2.
3 K.H. Waters. Herodotos the Historian: His Problems, Methods, and Originality.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985. Introduction.
4 Evans, 3.
5 Herodotus, History Translated by David Grene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1987. ix.102 All future reference are from this work with book number first, paragraph
number second.
6 Leonard Whibley. Introduction to The Famous Hystory of Herodotus New York: AMS
Press, 1967.
7 R.P. Lister. The Travels of Herodotus. New York: Gordon & Ceremonesi, 1979. 28.
8 Lister, 29.
9 Lister, 35.
10 Lister, 37.
11 Lister, 38.
12 The Cynetes are an as yet unidentified people, who are said to have lived west of the
Celts. If they existed, they may have dwelled in Spain.
13 Lister, 46.
14 Lister, 46.
15 Herodotus uncovered a legend which said that the original inhabitants of Scythia were
a people called the Cimmerians. He postulated that the Scythians had originally dwelt
further east and invaded the Cimmerian homelands. In fact, we know today that the
Scythians were forced out central Russia by predecessors of the Huns, who were forced
out of China somewhere between 827 and 781 BC, and in turn, pushed the Cimmerians
out of Scythia some time after that.
16 Lister, 49-51.
17 Most of the peoples that Herodotus describes as neighbors of the Scythians engaged in
the ritual sacrifice of all foreigners they captured in their lands. Greek merchants warned
that if a ship crashed near their shores, all aboard could expect to be sacrificed to the
Scythian version of Artemis.
18 Lister, 57-9.
19 Lister, 67.
20 John Hart. Herodotus and Greek History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. 163.
21 Herodotus has been called the "Father of History" since ancient times. For almost as
long, detractors have referred to him as "Father of Lies."
22 Lister, 83.
23 Evans, 7.
24 The order and dates of his second and third major expeditions, to Babylon and Egypt,
are indeterminable from direct evidence. Based on internal evidence and occasional
statements made by Herodotus it is generally believed that they voyage to Babylon came
25 One queen, Semiramus, was believed to be a fish-goddess by modern historians
despite Herodotus’ belief in her existence. In fact, some feel that her existence was
doubted simply because of the Greek historian’s belief. Inscriptions have since been
found which document her reign.
26 Lister, 100.
27 Lister, 96.
28 Lister, 112.
29 By this I mean that the Greeks relied on rain to water their fields and not periodic
rising rivers. Greece had long had relations with Egypt and there is no reason why the
Greeks would not have known about the periodic nature of the Nile’s flooding.
30 Lister, 109.
31 Lister, 120.
32 Herodotus seems to indicate that he approached Buto by boat, which would mean he
visited that city first. It would make little sense for him to travel first to Sais then travel a
hundred miles to the sea to sail to Buto when a 20 mile overland journey was possible.
33 Lister, 130
34 Lister, 134.
35 Lister, 137. Herodotus does not want to give away what he perceives as secrets of
Egyptian religion. Luckily we have other sources which were not so concerned with the
sanctity of Egypt’s faith.
36 Lister, 147.
37 Lister, 148.
38 Lister, 149.
39 Lister, 150.
40 The evidence that Herodotus actually went to Cyrene is spotty, but it does lead
scholars to tend to believe his account.
41 Lister, 158.
42 Lister, 159.
43 Lister, 159-60. The temple itself is believed to have been as old as the city of Tyre,
which was already, according to Herodotus, 2300 years old when the Greek historian
visited it.
44 Lister, 167.
45 Lister, 169.
46 Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Web document Book 3, Part 9.
47 This is the date of the foundation of Thurioi.
48 These incidents are: The expulsion of the Aiginetans from their island by Athens
(vi.91), the sparing of Decelea by the invading Peloponnesians (ix.73), and the execution
of the Spartan ambassadors Aneristus and Nicolaus (vii.137).
49 Hart, 165.
50 Aristophanes tells of a meeting between Athenian ambassadors and Persian officials
that mirrors the accounts Herodotus gives of life at Persian court, including the foods
served and the dining implements used. Also, the route and means of transport used by
the Athenians is the same as that used by prominent figures in the History.
51 Hart, 174.
52 Evans, 145.
53 quoted in Evans, 142.
54 Evans, 142.
55 He does so in v.36 and v.125.
56 Hecataeus calls Egypt the "Gift of the Nile" and Herodotus approves of this
description (ii.5) without citing the source of it.
57 Evans, 143. Hecataeus provides an alternate version of the expulsion of the Pelasgians
from Attica (vi.137).
58 Evans, 145.
59 ii.123.
60 Evans, 153.
61 Evans, 153.
62 Evans, 152.
63 Evans, 152.
64 Evans, 152.
65 Evans, 152.
66 The inscription on the great pyramid at Gizeh (ii.125) is an example of an inscription
quoted from memory.
67 Evans, 152.
68 Donald Lateiner. The Historical Method of Herodotus. Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 1989. 18.
69 Lateiner, 18.
70 Lateiner, 18.
71 vii.54-56.
72 Lateiner, 18-9.
73 Waters, 61.
74 v.49
75 Charles Rowan Beye. The Illiad, the Odyssey, and the Epic Tradition. Gloucester,
Mass: Doubleday 1972, 97.
76 i.139.
77 Lateiner, 31.
78 Waters, 51.
79 Lateiner, 19.
80 Lateiner, 19.
81 Lateiner, 19.
82 Lateiner, 20.
83 While Herodotus was willing to alter the style of his telling for the sake of clarity and
epic tradition, the effort and time he put into verifying his sources leads one to think that
Herodotus would not throw out accuracy and truth on a whim. If that were the case, then
why voyage to the far ends of the world? It would be far easier to invent a character and
have them relate the suspect information in a dramatic speech. (Some scholars-- those
who call Herodotus the "father of lies" believe that this is exactly what he did.)
84 Waters, 67.
85 iv.195.
86 Herodotus undoubtedly knew that a lot of what he was told was impossible or outright
wrong, and if he knew it, he knew his audience would know it too. Rather than deleting it
from the History, however, he includes it with a sarcastic undertone that leaves no doubt
about the author’s feelings about the source.
87 i.1
88 Evans, 13-17. The story of Antigone’s devotion to her brother is matched in
Herodotus 3.119 by the story of Intaphrenes’ wife, who chose to have her brother freed
by Darius rather than her husband.
89 Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. (i.22) Quoted in Evans, 163.
90 Evans holds Ctesias with something less than contempt. He calls him a "fraudulent
romancer, who borrowed Herodotus’s style, used him as a source, and repaid him by
blackening his reputation." (163).
91 Evans, 163.
92 Evans 164-5.
93 Plutarch takes Herodotus to task for his ambivalent feelings about Thebes, an accurate
criticism, then calls him a barbarian lover and berates him for finding barbarian origins
for things Plutarch considers Greek. (i.e. Greek religion, which Herodotus says originates
in Egypt.)
94 Evans 165.
95 Evans, 165.
96 Evans, 165-6.
97 Evans, 166.
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